In New York City, thousands of surveillance cameras monitor human movement and traffic, in subways and parks, at traffic lights and toll booths. Independent web cameras capture busy thoroughfares and nannycams keep watch in the chambers of private residences. There is no complete tally of security cameras in the city, and any figure would be immediately rendered inaccurate, as surveillance has mushroomed into a billion-dollar industry in recent years. Surveillance cameras are incorporated into the design of the MTA's new fleet of subway cars, standard in new buildings and there are even serious proposals to install them in taxis.
With surveillance becoming such a major part of everyday life, it's surprising that there seems to be little public discussion of it. Though recent polls confirm that people are increasingly alarmed by their lack of privacy, perhaps it's a testament to the hidden unobtrusive nature of closed-circuit television that makes it a difficult issue to organize against.
For the Surveillance Camera Players, a troupe of amateur performers with large-print placards and relatively unsophisticated acting who stage plays for security cameras, it's a struggle to try to raise public awareness about the proliferation of surveillance systems.
"The main challenge is to make the cameras visible," says Bill Brown, the 40-year-old Situationist-inspired activist who serves as mentor and mouthpiece for the group.
In 1996, Brown joined forces with a half-dozen locals folks to stage Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi in the Union Square subway station, before police stopped the show. Since then, the group has performed dozens of times in front of New York's security cameras, adapting such classics as Waiting for Godot and 1984 for the small, silent screen.
The performances are unusual spectacles. The group often meets on the spot, props in tow, to home in on the specific cameras they plan to address. They begin by holding up large placards with dialogue for the production, as the players resort to crude pantomime to convey their story. Because the security cameras are difficult to pinpoint, passers-by stop with curious glances, often wondering who the small company is addressing. Even those primed to jeer at protests are confused by this group of actors who stage a play with only magic markers and posterboard. Group members sometimes pass out "playbills" about the company, with information about the cameras trained on the play -- and the audience.
Walking a fine line between performance and demonstration, Brown feels the shows seldom provoke staid reactions. "Most protest styles are very aggressive," says Brown. "You see a crowd of agitated, yelling people and they seem unapproachable. With the Surveillance Camera Players, it's different. It makes people curious. On one hand, they understand we're not buskers, but, on the other hand, they're not sure if this is really a protest, so they actually come up and talk to us about what we're doing."
This SCP's style of activism-as-performance is an attention-getter, and the group has garnered impressive media coverage, from reportage in papers to a clip on CNN. When activists make the news these days, as became clear in Seattle, the negative coverage can drown out the messages the demonstrators are trying to raise. But, as Brown points out, "The SCP has seized the imagination of the media in a very different way than groups like the Black Bloc or the Ruckus Society have. We light up the news without being stigmatized as cranks or vandals."
According to law experts, anti-surveillance activists have a tough fight ahead of them. Court rulings protecting the installation of surveillance cameras bypass warrant requirements through the reasoning that a video camera is no different from the presence of a police officer. But is a police officer capable of zooming in up to a mile or observing a park with infra-red night vision to roust the sleeping homeless? Can police record all the minutiae they see? A close watcher of surveillance trends, Brown asserts, "This is qualitatively different from having a cop on the street, and with the new generation of technology, which merges automatic video cameras and remote tracking and biometrics software, they have developed systems that can constantly check visual data against a database of human faces. They even have cameras that see through clothing. Typically, in law enforcement, you find a suspect and you follow that person. But when you start following everyone, you are producing vast quantities of low-grade intelligence, and the subtext is that everyone is a suspect."
Proponents of surveillance frequently claim that the cameras are only a threat to criminals, and they deter crime. Observers of crime figures for the United Kingdom, arguably the most surveilled country in the world, illustrate that cameras have not as much deterred crime as they have displaced crime. Crime may drop in surveilled areas, only to migrate elsewhere, in most instances, to poor and working class neighborhoods.
Though such cameras will help police make dozens of misdemeanor arrests, or convict thousands luckless enough to light a blunt or scratch a tag in monitored areas, are these new devices somehow immune from the troubling biases of law enforcement?
Brown believes he sees what is, at best, selective enforcement, and what is, at worst, racial profiling. "That sort of stuff comes into play with the planned [use of] surveillance cameras on the subway, with the scratching on the glass and the petty vandalism. These low-grade arrests will fall disproportionately on the black and Latino communities. If they're worried about crime, why don't they put cameras in the headquarters of AFSCME District Council 37 [a corrupt union board facing an on-going inquiry]?"
The SCP has long joked that the group was invented in part to help relieve the boredom of police and security personnel who spend dreary hours hunched over bays of monitors, viewing the ultimate in boring programming. The police have indeed been interested in the performances, usually arriving to order the curtain dropped. In the past, the group had lawyers present to balk overzealous police or security. Brown says the lawyers "weren't much help anyway," and the group dispensed with them. Now the SCP tries to deal with these show-stoppers as best they can, and the ensuing confrontations can trump any drama the absurd performers produce.
Video tapes shot by the troupe afford glimpses of square-headed security staff lunging at the signs to end the play, or non-plussed police wandering on-camera to give the exuent omnes. In one video, police walk into the frame of a black-and-white security monitor where the SCP is performing a scene from 1984: Winston is being tortured and indoctrinated in Room 101. Jaded strap-hangers walk by uneasily as the perplexed cops try to surmise the situation.
The group understands that their unusual tactics will not bring about the fall of the security state, and Brown sees an expanding role for surveillance in the future. "Surveillance will become a part of everyday society, and people are going to confuse surveillance with security at work and as consumers. I doubt we'll be able to eliminate the cameras, but we believe they should at least be clearly labeled. Right now they are even hidden as streetlamps."
Brown has no such fatalism about the SCP, however, saying, "Nothing stands in the way of this group's development. I feel a great sense of accomplishment. It's what we make it."
[Originally published in Shout: New York, September 2000.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail Info@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998